VOLGOGRAD — The Sochi Olympic torch’s marathon journey through Russia arrived today in Volgograd, a city still reeling in the shadow of twin bombings that killed dozens just a few weeks ago.
Along the relay route the mood was festive, despite single digit temperatures. Spectators cheered the runners and waved pom poms and Coca-Cola sponsored banners.
Security – a concern very much at the forefront of the minds of American officials — was visible, but not overbearing. Police and interior ministry officers, lightly armed, guarded intersections and traffic was shut down in much of the city center. On the outskirts, more police forces waited in buses.
The powerful Russian military appeared largely absent – a marked change from a few weeks ago after the Russian government sent hundreds of troops into the city following dual bombings in December that killed dozens of civilians. Those attacks were preceded by a bus bombing in the same city in October that was caught on camera.
The two most recent bombings were claimed in a video released online over the weekend to be the work of two suicide bombers who said attacks on the Olympics would be “revenge” for the deaths of Muslims around the world.
“We’ll have a surprise package for you,” one of the men said in the militants’ video. “And those tourists that will come to you, for them, too, we have a surprise. If it happens [the Olympics], we’ll have a surprise for you. This is for all the Muslim blood that is shed every day around the world, be it in Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, all around the world. This will be our revenge.”
Increased police presence in Volgograd lasted a couple weeks, but locals say now the level of security appears to have largely dropped back to normal.
The city itself, just a weeks weeks after the bombings, still bears the scars of the attacks. Outside the train station that was the target of one of the bombings, teddy bears, photos of the victims and flowers comprise a makeshift memorial that is now partly covered in fresh snow.
The Olympic torch is set to reach Sochi, some 400 miles southwest, in time for the Opening Ceremony on Feb. 7.
Before that, it will again venture into restive territories in southern Russia. Next Monday it will travel to Makhachkala, the violent capital of Dagestan and then on to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. Both regions are home to a separatist movement that has fought against the Russian state for decades.